Sintia Marquez in Rocketship's Learning Lab, where she uses adapative technology that moves at her level.
When it comes to a student's education, expectation is everything. What parents and educators expect from each student, and what she expects from herself, has a tremendous effect on how a student fares in school.
Though she’s naturally a high achiever – well above grade level in both literacy and math – that foundation of support and encouragement from her parents and teachers is helping her forge ahead, even in a public charter school where more than 90% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 70% for whom English is a second language.
Sintia’s mother was allowed to progress only to middle school in Mexico. She’s a housekeeper now, and her father finds work as a contractor and a restaurant worker. “Sintia can’t say that I have a career that she can be proud of,” said Livier Maria Marquez in the one-bedroom guesthouse she shares with her husband and two daughters. “One of my hopes is for her to go to college. She really wants to go to Stanford or Santa Clara.”
If the present is any indication of the future, Sintia is well on her way there. In June, she’ll graduate from Rocketship, one of three branded charter schools in the area that has plans to expand across the state and across the country. The school offers open enrollment and receives funding from local, state, and federal taxes, as well as from venture capital.
Since she transferred from a nearby public school in fourth grade, Sintia has been able to progress at her own advanced level with the help of the charter school’s hybrid learning system. With this system, teachers teach high-level concepts in class, and students practice those theories in a computer lab.
It’s all part of a highly engineered, tightly structured block schedule that moves students through classrooms and computer labs, with time for recess, lunch, and outdoor activities throughout the day.
“They’re transitioning from class to class the way high school kids do,” said Judith McGarry, spokesperson for Rocketship (who has since left the organization). “You’ll see how a topic is being introduced in social studies and it gets carried through into math, etcetera.”
Here’s how it works: A student starts her day with a literacy teacher, for example, for a three-and-a-half hour block of time during which the class practices basic grammar skills, works with guided reading programs, rotates through science or social studies lessons, and works on writing skills. After lunch, the student goes to a different teacher’s class, where she works on math for the next one hour and 45 minutes.
Then it’s time to go to Learning Lab, a computer area cordoned off by dividers that shares space with the school’s modest cafeteria. In the Learning Lab’s Reading Center, students read independently at their own level for 30 to 45 minutes everyday (Sintia is reading Twilight and loving it), then take a break with P.E. outside. They then return to the computer rotation, where they spend 30 to 45 minutes on adaptable learning programs.
In the lab, the 1st graders log in by selecting from a group of images that acts as a personal password, and then race through a short assessment that covers math and reading problems. Faced with the prompt “Put all the striped balls in one basket and all the polka-dotted balls in the other basket,” a student named Jazmine uses her mouse to move the objects to their places. Then it’s on to the core activity of her 90 minutes in the lab: a lesson on counting and grouping using software from DreamBox. The scenarios are slightly surreal—more objects to move, in this case mostly fruit, and the reward for getting it right involves an animated monkey bringing yet more fruit to a stash on her island—but she and most other students take on the task assiduously. It may be a lesson, but that’s not how Jazmine sees it. “This game is really easy,” she says. A bit later, she’ll read a book from a box targeted at her exact reading level, and make a return visit to the computer to take a short quiz about what she read.
Rocketship uses educational programs that are adaptive -- they help students progress at their own level and really achieve individualized learning, the Holy Grail of education.
McGarry describes it this way, using an example of a student learning two-digit addition: “If she’s really struggling, the program sees that in terms of the way she’s playing the game. So the program will just unobtrusively and automatically back her up into the building block skills that go into two-digit addition. Once the program sees that she’s doing just fine there, then she’ll try once again to move into that two-digit scenario. That’s how remediation is occurring in this sort of seamless, automated way.”
And since most kids don’t have computers at home, McGarry said, “they love going into Learning Lab, because it’s really fun for them and they get to play.”
The programs they use are:
DreamBox Learning (Math)
Reasoning Mind (Math)
ALEKS Quicktables (Math)
Rosetta Stone (English Language Development)
The day is long – from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but for someone like Sintia, that’s not so bad.
“Sometimes I’m tired because I have a bad day, but everyone has a bad day,” she says. “But I like it because you can spend more time with friends, and you can better understand what your teachers are talking about.”
For kids who are struggling – including those with learning disabilities or in special education programs – the school provides a Response to Intervention program, where they learn with tutors in small groups. In a large classroom furnished with big, round tables, students rotate in throughout the day for 30-minute intervals for more focused, individual help.
The heart of Rocketship is not just use of computers and a grid schedule, though. Hybrid learning (they don’t call it “blended learning” because the computers aren’t blended into the class per se) is a huge component of the school’s secret sauce. But other important factors contribute to the package: a powerful school culture, strong emphasis on assessments (for better or for worse), and a focus on teacher retention and professional development. More to come on those topics.
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